Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews, Horror

Blu-ray/DVD: Hammer Films’ ‘Twins of Evil’

Hammer Films, the British studio that revived the classic horror film in the late 1950s with a lusty mix of gothic repression, lurid debauchery, sensationalistic set pieces, and bleeding color, struggled to keep up in seventies as rival studios became even more lurid and censorship standards brought nudity into mainstream cinema. The Hammer formula was getting tired, and so were the directors, so new blood (so to speak) was brought in.

Twins of Evil (CAV), the third film in what has been called Hammer’s “Karnstein Trilogy,” is scripted by Tudor Gates (who came to Hammer by way of Mario Bava) and directed by John Hough (who came from television, notably “The Avengers,” where he learned sleek style and visual wit).

It’s another twist on Sheridan Le Fanu’s female vampire story “Carmilla,” this one announced right in the title. Playboy centerfolds Madeleine and Mary Collinson play the titular twin orphans, beautiful young women who arrive from the cultural capital of Venice to the repressive, superstitious, northern European town of Karnstein. This isolated village is ruled by a debauched Count (Damien Thomas) and terrorized by a severe Puritan sect of witch hunters that calls themselves “The Brotherhood.” Led by the obsessive Gustav Weil (Peter Cushing), who sees sin everywhere, they behave no better than a lynch mob: too terrified to confront the politically protected Count, the only true evil in the land, they target beautiful single women and burn them at the stake, ostensibly to end to evil killing the townsfolk but more clearly purging their own lust.

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD

Blu-ray/DVD: ‘Run For Cover’

Nicholas Ray was one of the most interesting directors in Hollywood in the 1950s. He was fascinated by outcasts and orphans, father figures and struggling sons, broken people driven by anger and colliding with society, anxious teenagers and young adults looking for their identity and their place in a hostile world. By any measure, Run For Cover is second-tier Ray, a western with interesting colors in a familiar frame. Made between his cult western Johnny Guitar and his legendary Rebel Without a Cause, it in many ways anticipates the latter in the western mode of the former, though with a more conventional approach and an emphasis on the father figure over the symbolic son.

James Cagney didn’t make many westerns — he established himself as an urban guy, street smart and pugnacious, in the thirties, and this is his first western since The Oklahoma Kid in 1939 — but he is excellent here as Matt Dow. Tough as a coil of barbed wire, he’s a loner and a survivor riding through the Colorado frontier and targeted by a lynch mob for a crime he didn’t commit. John Derek co-starred in Ray’s 1949 social drama Knock on Any Door and plays a variation of the same role as Davey Bishop, a young man orphaned as a child and raised by the community, passed around among the families of his small town of Madison. Davey is shot and crippled by a reckless, cowardly sheriff who ambushes the “train robbers” without giving them a chance to surrender, and Matt (after angrily proving their innocence to the townsfolk) all but adopts Davey, feeling responsible for his injury because he made Davey ride in front of him along the trail.

There an angry young man angle to the story, a juvenile delinquent movie in the old west, with Derek’s Davey as the cocky kid who becomes bitter and angry at the world for its mistreatment of him. But he’s a supporting character in the primary story of Matt, a man who has suffered the same mistreatments (he served time for a crime he didn’t commit, a sentence that cost him his family) and emerged wary and self-sufficient, but steadfastly moral. Impressed with his strength of character and cool under pressure, the townsfolk ask Matt to be their new sheriff and he takes the job on the condition that there will be no more lynch mobs, and that Davey serve as his deputy. Cagney’s Matt offers a form of tough love with Davey, but it is love nonetheless, a commitment to the boy that no one else has provided. The film turns on their relationship and their choices, as Matt romances Swedish farmer’s daughter Helga (Viveca Lindfors) and joins the community and Davey slides into failure, self-pity, and moral compromise.

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews, Science Fiction

DVD/Blu-ray Cult Classic: Jack Arnold’s ‘The Space Children’

The Space Children (Olive) is one of the most intriguing science fiction films of the cold war, part alien invasion thriller and part anti-nuclear message movie, with the children of Earth essentially conscripted by a throbbing disembodied brain from outer space to sabotage a nuclear test.

Director Jack Arnold and William Alland collaborated on some of the best science fiction films and most distinctive atomic monster movies of the 1950s, among them It Came From Outer Space, Creature From the Black Lagoon, and Tarantula, all made for Universal. The Space Children was made for Paramount, who gave them more freedom but less money. It shows. Arnold is saddled with a script that is both ambitious and confused, a cast that is credible at best, and a tight budget that doesn’t even allow him to match his terrific location shooting (he uses the beaches and rocks of the California coast as well as he does the southwest desert of Tarantula) with the studio-built cave where the kids find the glowing brain creature. For the missile pad itself, the target of the third-act plot, the production forgoes miniatures or trick shots and simply relies on a single matte painting.

Given all that, Arnold creates a cold war movie where the fear of nuclear war is, for many of the civilians of the base, greater than the fear of the enemy. The film is set on a high security missile base on the California coast, where civilian experts have been brought together to work on a top secret project: a missile mounted on an orbiting satellite targeted on the enemy for instant attack. The community of scientists and their families living out of trailer homes on the missile base beach as a microcosm for American society. It’s part campground camaraderie and part working-class deprivation, with entire families crammed into tiny trailers and forced to step out to the communal picnic space for a little elbow room.

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

DVD/Blu-ray: Abbas Kiarostami’s ‘Certified Copy’

The films of Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami have always explored the complex relationship of cinema to the world it reproduces and recreates in a frame. To quote a line from Certified Copy, “It’s our perception that gives [art] value.” The film, which is also Kiarostami’s first film produced and shot outside of Iran, plays with our perceptions in playful and provocative and revealing ways.

William Shimell and Juliette Binoche

Certified Copy is a truly cosmopolitan affair, with a goddess of a French leading lady (Juliette Binoche), a British opera singer (William Shimell) as his leading man, an Italian location and crew, and a meandering, introspective, fascinating conversation that slips between English, French and Italian. Kiarostami penned the screenplay himself, with Massoumeh Lahidji “adapting” and translating. Binoche plays a French-born antiques dealer and single mother in Italy (she’s never called by name in the film and is identified as “Elle” in the credits, which in French means “she”), at once pulsing with life and worn down by it. Shimell is James Miller, a British author and philosopher in Italy for the release (in translation) of his new book on art, authenticity, and value. He arrives at his press conference a calm, confident man, all reason and unflappable self-control, even when she arrives late and carries on a distracting conversation of gestures with her hungry, bored son. She arranges a kind of date with the handsome and assured author, driving him through the alleys of her small town through the countryside to a nearby village to view an “original copy” as they debate the meaning of authenticity. They can’t agree on anything, but there is something there.

James is every inch the intellectual philosopher and enjoys the discussion as a kind of exercise, all romantic ideals and philosophical ideas, while Elle, far more emotionally invested, draws from her practical experience of living in the world. Over the course of the afternoon they flirt, spar and grow old together. When a chatty trattoria proprietor mistakes them for husband and wife, they simply segue into the roles and the outing becomes a portrait of a marriage fifteen years on. The transition is not exactly sudden or shocking — in some ways, it’s almost imperceptible, thanks to the graceful long takes and the easy rhythms Kiarostami’s style of heightened naturalism — but the tectonic shift is like a narrative earthquake that completely shifts the ground beneath their feet and our engagement with this characters. This is not some first date game from a nervous couple indulging in a little joke. Their whole relationship shifts with it: awkwardness and nervous chatter gives way to the rhythms and comfort of old habits and the disagreements of earlier conversations harden into frustration and exasperation over long-standing aggravations. As the afternoon date becomes a wedding anniversary, old patterns of arguments play out all over again in tetchy exchanges and emotional collisions, or so we can gather from the resignation of their responses.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Silent Cinema

MOD Movies: Silent Hollywood

Show People (Warner Archive), from 1927, is one of the greatest of Hollywood silent movie self-portraits. It is a marvelous showcase for the talents of Marion Davies and in some ways it is the story of its star. Davies was a natural comedienne, full of warmth and sparkle and energy and sweetness, but William Randolph Hearst (her boyfriend) didn’t think comedy was dignified enough for his woman and wanted to build her up as a dramatic star.

In Show People, Davies plays Peggy Pepper, is naïve Southern girl trained in hoary stage melodrama and brought to Hollywood by a father who wants to make her a star. With her bright eyes and big smile and unassuming determination, Davies makes Peggy a delight, completely out of her element in the professional studio system but plucky enough to get over her humiliation and become a natural in the “low” comedy of slapstick while dreaming of the serious drama put out by the likes of High Art Studios, which indeed comes calling.

King Vidor rarely dipped his toes into comedy but this was his second film with Davies and he brings out the best in her and in the film, which spoofs the culture of Hollywood celebrity while celebrating the act of moviemaking. He slights neither aspect, and while his recreation of the slapstick film unit (a Keystone Kops-like team) is clearly a fiction, there is surely more authenticity to the moviemaking apparatus than we see in more contemporary films about filmmaking. And to fans of old Hollywood, the film also features some of the superstars of the era playing themselves in playful cameos, including Charles Chaplin (out of makeup), Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart, Mae Murray, Louella Parsons, Norma Talmadge, Lew Cody, Elinor Glyn, and King Vidor himself. He’s a better director than actor and he brings a light, deft touch to this bouncy comedy. The disc features an archival synchronized score with sound effects, and the mono soundtrack is low fidelity and in some sequences quite distorted. It preserves the original release version, but more audio work needs to be done.

Show People is one of the most famous of the Hollywood silent movie self-portraits. One far less well know but almost as accomplished and just as interesting is Souls For Sale (Warner Archive), a 1923 feature that was lost for years and rescued in the last decade.

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

DVD/Blu-ray: ‘Summer Interlude’

The critical consensus is that Summer Interlude, the tenth feature from Ingmar Bergman, was a breakthrough for the filmmaker: his first film built around a strong, assertive, sure woman and the first shot extensively on location, where the natural world becomes a defining reflection of the lives of his characters.

Maj-Britt Nilsson and Birger Malmsten

This information comes courtesy of film historian and Bergman expert Peter Cowie, who has written extensively on Bergman and contributes the fine essay in the accompanying booklet to the Criterion release. I have much less experience with early Bergman, to be honest. It has been, in fact, the recent Criterion Blu-ray releases of classic Bergman films that has brought back to the director and introduced me to films I had never seen previously. It’s been a rewarding rediscovery of a director that I confess I have respected more than I’ve appreciated, in no small part thanks to the sheer beauty of the Criterion presentations. The cinematography of Gunnar Fischer has long been overshadowed by Bergman’s legendary collaborations with Sven Nykvist and the distinctive winter light of his images, but Criterion’s superbly remastered discs remind us of the beauty of his work, from the sunny, lush warmth of his summer interludes to the gray, foggy cloud of urban life and the cold desolation of fall and winter.

The blush of summer and the death of autumn are defining moods of Summer Interlude. Maj-Britt Nilsson, one of Bergman’s most overlooked actresses, plays Marie, an emotionally distant leading dancer in a Stockholm ballet company. An envelope containing a handwritten diary sends her mind reeling back thirteen years, to sunny days of young love and freedom and the first stirrings of desire on a summer vacation on the archipelago islands near Stockholm. She’s 15 and an aspiring ballerina, staying in vacation manor home of her Uncle Erland (Georg Funkquist), whose flirtations are more unsettlingly lustful than avuncular, and long-suffering Aunt Elisabeth (Renée Björling).

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

DVD/Blu-ray: The ‘Summer’s of Ingmar Bergman

Summer Interlude (Criterion) and Summer With Monika (Criterion), the tenth and twelfth films (respectively) directed by Ingmar Bergman, make a fine match set showing off the two sides of Bergman developing in his early years as a filmmaker.

Summer Interlude (1951), the story of a summer romance between a sunny, confident young ballet student (Maj-Britt Nilsson) and a shy scholar (Birger Malmsten) on the lush vacation islands of the Stockholm archipelago, is a memory film. The older ballerina, now emotionally cocooned in regret and loss, is sent back to those free and easy days when she  receives a handwritten diary, and she revisits the island, now a cold, foggy corpse of its summer lushness, to come to terms with her past.

Lovingly shot by Gunnar Fischer, Bergman’s first great cinematographer collaborator, the film is steeped in metaphor: a philosophical rumination on love and loss staged as a story, with characters more like archetypes in a theatre piece. Summer is the charge of youth in the idealism of eternal vacation and the innocence of young love in all its dimensions.

Summer with Monika (1953), starring Bergman’s first acknowledged muse Harriet Andersson as the impulsive, anxious, immature young Monika, is more about the complications, the rough edges, the unseen complications in a young couple after the bloom of sexual charge gives way to living in the real world.

Here, summer is less a metaphor and more of the literal time of year that allows these working teenagers to flee the city and live on the islands of the archipelago without a care. For Monika, it is an escape from the reality of the city – her family, her job, the dull life of a working class girl – and only the reality of supplies and food and the onset of autumn’s cold weather drives her back from this ambivalent self-made Eden and back to the material world of Stockholm.

Both are miniatures, studies in character and idea, small in scope and ambition, full of lovely moments and delicate performances. Bergman is finding his themes and learning to express himself and they both feature with moments of grace They don’t have the depth or the breadth or the richness of his great films, but his growth as a filmmaker is apparent in these jump between these two films. Where “Interude” is lovely but sophisticated sketch for films to come, “Monika” brings the real world into Bergman’s world and the tensions create a more powerful and resonant film.

Both debut on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion. Summer Interlude features no supplements beyond a booklet with an essay by Peter Cowie. Summer with Monika features an introduction by Ingmar Bergman (recorded in 2003), a new video interview with actress Harriet Andersson conducted by Peter Cowie, half-hour documentary Images from the Playground by Stig Björkman (featuring behind-the-scenes footage shot by Bergman), and an interview with film scholar Eric Schaefer discussing the original American release of Summer with Monika as an exploitation film, cut down and dubbed by Kroger Babb and released as Monika: Story of a Bad Girl.

Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

DVD/Blu-ray: ‘Being John Malkovich’

Being John Malkovich, a mindgame of a bizarre fantasy ostensibly about a marionette puppeteer who discovers a hidden tunnel that carries spelunkers into the mind of actor John Malkovich (played by John Malkovich) where they vicariously enjoy his life for their alotted 15 minutes, was released in 1999, at a time when our obsession with celebrity was mainly fed by gossip magazines and entertainment programs and the new paradigm of reality TV had was just about to explode. Over a decade later, as intrusions into the private lives of entertainment stars has reached new depths thanks to portable video devices and hackers targeting celebrity cell phones, and a longer reach thanks to a proliferations of bottom-feeding websites, it is as timely and topical as ever.

Because Being John Malkovich, the debut feature from both director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, takes identity theft to an existential level (forget hacking into cell phones, they’re hacking into someone’s mind!), but it is not really about celebrity stalking, or obsession, or even envy. It has been called quirky, clever, funny, and satirical, and it is all that, but behind all of the madcap invention and creative playfulness is a terrible sadness, a portrait of people so miserable in their own skins that they will do almost anything to become someone else. That it presents them with such humor and imagination and, yes, even empathy makes it all the more devastating portrait of the human condition. What better way to explore the vicious things we do for love than through laughter?

John Cusack’s sad-sack marionette Craig Schwartz could be the poster boy for the self-absorbed artist, shaggy and self-important and unemployed, defiantly creating chamber dramas and performance art pieces in his miniature stages. They are at once rarified expressions of angst (his performances are as much modern dance as puppet plays) and wish fulfillment fantasies: tortured art from the tortured artist acting out the life he’s unable to live. Kaufman’s subsequent films are filled with simulacra of lives, from the fading memories of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to the elaborate theatrical recreations nestled one within another of Synecdoche, New York, and characters who, unable to control their own lives, resort to obsessively revisiting their past and fix it, erase it, or simply observe. It all springs from here.

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Posted in: Animation, Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

DVD/Blu-ray: ‘The Secret World of Arrietty” and other Hayao Miyazaki wonders

The Secret World of Arrietty (Disney), the latest animated film from Hayao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli, adapts Mary Norton’s classic children’s book “The Borrowers” in the old school art of hand-drawn animation. Hiromasa Yonebayashi is the director but the sensibility is very much Miyazaki, who produced, co-scripted, and planned the production.

The Secret World of Arrietty

Miyazaki is a living treasure in Japan, a revered storyteller and beloved filmmaker whose work is treated with the same respect as Disney classics in the U.S., and he has long offered strong, brave girls as the protagonists of his stories. Arrietty is yet another dynamic heroine, a teenage girl only a few inches tall who lives hidden in the floorboards of a human home with her father and mother.

She knows of no other Borrowers (as these little people are called, because they “borrow” things the humans won’t notice missing in their nighttime forages) so, despite her own instincts, she befriends the sickly boy who has moved into the house and quietly observed her presence.

The images are marvelous, a lovely example of Ghibli hand-drawn animation and a reminder of the kind of personality that comes through this kind of art, but it is the compassion and depth of character that makes it such a moving film. So rarely do films for kids explore themes of mortality and isolation with such delicacy and depth.

Also new this week is the Blu-ray debut of two classic animated features from Studio Ghibli. Castle in the Sky (Disney) and Whisper of the Heart (Disney), written and produced by Miyazaki and directed by Yoshifumi Kondo.

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews, Television

TV on Disc: ‘Sherlock: Season Two’

It sounded like a terrible idea at the time: update Sherlock Holmes to the 21st century of texts and computer searches and blogs.

To the surprise and delight of all, the first series of Sherlock, the BBC revival / revision of the classic detective developed by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss was intelligent, inspired, clever, compelling, and very, very entertaining. Sherlock: Season Two (BBC), which consists of three feature-length mysteries, ups the ante and the ambition.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is still a tetchy, borderline Asperger syndrome genius more interested in a challenge than justice and Martin Freeman’s Watson holds his own as a witty, warm, loyal and often critical assistant to his eccentric roommate. But in this run the anti-social Holmes has become a media celebrity and Jim Moriarty not merely an underworld mastermind but an insane criminal who, like Holmes, just wants a challenge.

The creators don’t just update the classic stories, they reimagine them. The inspirations are imbedded in the tweaked titles — “An Affair in Belgravia” (with Lara Pulver as a memorable Irene Adler), “The Hounds of Baskerville” (set in Britain’s answer to Area 51), and “The Reichenbach Fall” (with Andrew Scott as insane criminal genius James Moriarty) — and writers Moffat and Gatiss (who serves double duty as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft onscreen) spin new stories out of the situations and characters and iconic elements of the originals

The three episodes are really feature films, not just in running time but in scope and depth and complexity, and director Paul McGuigan adds a visual aesthetic to match in the first two films of the second season. We don’t simply observe the way Sherlock cases a room, we get a peek into the way he picks out details and files away observations, and an idea at the restlessness of his OCD mind.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman

But it wouldn’t work without the characters, the fully-realized characterizations, and the chemistry. As played by Cumberbatch, Holmes is a magnificent character and this is the first incarnation to allow him to be such a thoughtless misanthrope (even while showing the cracks in his emotional armor). But let us please acknowledge that Freeman’s far less showy yet equally realized John Watson is the best screen incarnation of this character ever, an intelligent, capable military doctor with as much courage as compassion. And the makeover of Lestrade from the bumbling foil and comic relief of previous adaptations into a competent, talented police detective with both professional and personal interests in Sherlock only adds to dynamic. It’s always more interesting when Sherlock is the smartest person in a room full of smart people.

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